What Is Code-Switching?

Code-switching means “the modifying of one’s speech, behavior, appearance, etc. to adapt to different sociocultural norms.” So why do we do it?

Why do we code-switch?

There are many reasons why we code-switch. The main reason, however, is actually quite simple: acceptance in varying social situations.

It’s no secret that we instinctively fear being perceived as “the other,” or as different, or as an outsider. That’s a lonely place to be. It can cause anxiety, or even worse, it can lead to feelings so strong that we avoid interaction altogether. Thus, when we enter into a social situation we’re not familiar with, we code-switch to better fit in. This process happens intuitively and is a result of simply observing one’s surroundings. It’s almost like a translation device located in your head.

Realistically, code-switching knows no racial boundaries. Every geographic region and race have their own different dialects and ways of speaking. Practically, however, code-switching is much more prevalent among non-whites in the US. The reason for that is the usage of Standard American English (SAE). (This is where it gets dicey.)

SAE is commonly associated with Caucasians, and as such, it is the basis of school curriculums and other formal tasks such as job interviews. Thus, speakers of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) or non-native English speakers find themselves commonly code-switching more often than their white peers. And, just to note, code-switching doesn’t have to be restricted to oral language.

In a sense though, code-switching requires people to almost be bilingual. This can be a pernicious problem for early-childhood development, and as of late, some linguists have been pushing to make code-switching a part of early-education curricula. It’s a great idea, but ultimately, a conversation for a different essay.

What about cultural appropriation?

In some circles, code-switching has been lumped in with the concept of cultural appropriation. It’s important to note that these charges are incorrect. In fact, the two have little to do with one another. The best way of looking at the distinction is this: If one chooses to adopt a dialect different from their own, the individual opens oneself to charges of cultural appropriation. Code-switching on the other hand is a subconscious action taken without consideration.

In the end, code-switching is just a natural byproduct of being exposed to different environments. And, that’s a good thing.

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